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Reviewed by:
  • Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa
  • Mollie Lewis Nouwen
Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa. By Allen Wells. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009. 480 pp. $99.95 (cloth); $27.95 (paper).

Allen Wells has written a thoroughly researched portrait of a group of Jewish refugees who found themselves, owing to the vagaries of the political climate of the time, settled on agricultural colonies in the Dominican Republic. Wells argues that "[w]hat is striking about the Sosúa episode is how securely these stateless exiles were tethered, without their knowledge of consent, to larger geopolitical concerns at a moment of world crisis" (pp. xix–xx). These "geopolitical concerns"—including debates among American Jews about their role in the United States; American policies on refugees, immigrants, and possible spies; and Trujillo's desire for greater recognition—are at the center of Wells's book. The book achieves what Wells set out to do: tell the story of the Jews of Sosúa focusing on the ways world political forces shaped the colonies.

Wells's book is a welcome addition to the historiography on Jews [End Page 785] in Latin America. Much of the previous scholarship has been narrowly focused on communal histories and paid little attention to the ways that Jews fit into the political life of the culture in which they lived, much less their role in international politics. In recent years, however, works like Raanan Rein's Argentina, Israel, and the Jews: Perón, the Eichmann Capture and After (2003) have inserted Jews into the framework of politics and foreign policy. Wells's book, with its wealth of information on not just Jews in the Dominican Republic but also the larger Jewish refugee issue, shows how much the field needs more works that look at Jews in Latin America on a macro, not micro, level.

The book's focus on foreign policy is part of a larger current of Latin American history that places Latin America in the larger world context. Wells's book is particularly useful for his examination of the Trujillo regime and the general's attempt to gain legitimacy for his dictatorship from the United States. The complicated story of the Dominican Republic and its relationship with the United States is illuminated with the story of the Jews in Sosúa. Unlike many other books that deal with Latin American foreign relations, Wells's book is not just about the Dominican Republic and the United States, but manages to bring in the worldwide network of countries and organizations involved in addressing the refugee situation.

The refugee crisis is central to the book, and Wells's excellent research reveals a lack of desire on the part of all major world powers to deal with it effectively. General Trujillo's offer to receive refugees was greeted with hope, yet was on such a small scale that it ultimately was not any kind of answer to the wide-ranging refugee problem. What emerges from Wells's sources is an astonishing lack of responsibility on the part of the world powers to make any kind of provisions for refugees. Once the war itself began, the problem became even more severe, yet the efforts of different countries and organizations were a case of too little, too late.

The first two parts of the book focus on the political background to the colony, including American foreign and refugee policy, Trujillo's Dominican Republic, and the divisions within the American Jewish community around the refugee issue. He identifies the key players and carefully lays the groundwork for the actual story of the Jews of Sosúa. Using a wide array of evidence, Wells reveals the difficulties that those working on behalf of refugees faced when trying to support and resettle them.

In the third section, Wells turns to the refugees themselves and the story of the colony and its difficulties. The story of the Sosúa colony is used as an example of one of the few successful refugee-saving [End Page 786] operations, and Wells has done a great deal of research on how the colony functioned, particularly...


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